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  • Sandrine Lee
Esperanza Spalding is one of the best bass players in the world. She sings and plays and unfolds into the songs with absolute and subconscious mastery. She’s a Grammy winning sovereign of the jazz world. At the age of twenty, she became one of the youngest instructors Berklee College of Music has ever hired. In 2009, she played for Obama at the White House in honor of Stevie Wonder being awarded a Gershwin Prize. You can see Obama in the front row, enraptured, as is pretty much anyone that sees or hears her perform. Spalding’s album Chamber Music Society was the best-selling contemporary jazz album of 2011, and I am at her service. She spoke from her mobile tour bus.

Would you ever want to play with a Miles Davis hologram? I have to be honest, I have dreams of you playing with Miles. Not to be freaky or anything.

The hologram thing seems disrespectful. Seems like a gimmick. I think that would be disrespectful to his legacy. I wish I could have met him though. I’m making my own music, I wouldn’t want to take advantage of an icon that way. Miles is a true master. Evolution of music is so powerful. I've had the privilege of getting to know some people he played with. His music has taught me a lot. You can’t stand in the way of the evolution of music. Even while some people talk about the good ‘ol days, of any particular genre, the truth is, the music lives in the people. The people that are listening to the recordings, the people who are transcribing, and composing, and playing and practicing the music. No matter how great someone was in the past, the best thing that’s happening is the thriving interpolation of the organism of the music right now. We love the masters, and rightfully so. We must embrace what they’ve done. It’s also important to embrace what’s happening now as equally valid, because it’s here.

I spoke with Miles’ guitar player John McLaughlin about recording Bitches Brew. I asked him what direction Miles gave him before the sessions. John said he walked into the studio that day, and Miles told him to play guitar like he didn’t know how to play the guitar.

I think we’re all trying to do that [laughs]. It’s like dialogue. You’re going to go have a conversation with someone you respect, and there will be things you’re going to want to say. But you can’t always come with that prepared schpiel. You have to be willing to let go of everything you intended to say, and flow where the dialogue flows. Even if it means subjects that you’ve never studied. You might discover an idea that you’ve never tried to form words for before.

What was playing for Obama like?

The crazy thing was who in the audience. All these people I’ve admired my whole life—Paul Simon, Herbie Hancock, Stevie Wonder, India Arie, Tony Bennett, Spike Lee. All these shining people. People who love Stevie, it was honoring him. It wasn’t just a gig, it was playing to honor someone whose art we loved so much. I didn’t know Stevie that well at that point.

How did you go about transposing “Overjoyed”? It sounds so good.

Thank you. I only got that arrangement like two days before. And it was written, I think, by a piano player, in a weird key. There were all these fifths, these leaps of octaves and fifths and sixths. Those fifths and sixths, man. To do those fast on the bass, it’s not very ergonomic. I was closing my eyes for concentration because I didn’t want to mess up [laughs]. I wanted to do justice to the song.

Have you ever thought of covering a Rush song? You and Geddy Lee? I mean come on, a match made in heaven, as bass players that sing. I’m sensing a double live album. No pressure though, just whenever you can get to it. When you get into the Rush catalogue, you won’t be able to get out.

Sounds good [laughs]. I don’t ever rule anything out. I’ll have to study up.

Be careful out there on the road. Don’t mix Whoppers and Red Bull when you stop at the gas station. It’ll mess you up.

Best advice I’ve had all year. I’ll let everyone know. Thanks for looking out.